Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Sad memories

(March 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.140, March 1991, p.8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE GUARDIAN newspaper ran a sad little article by Eric Heffer about a fortnight ago.

Eric has been in the news a fair bit recently because, although he is very ill with cancer, he has stood out against the official Labour line of support for what he rightly calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In this he is part of the very small band of Labour MPs that includes Bernie Grant, Tony Benn, George Galloway, Dennis Skinner – although not the former chair of CND, Joan Ruddock.

But Eric’s article was not about the war. It was a piece he had written on his 26 years in the House of Commons for Westminster’s House Magazine.

What was sad about the article was that it was infused with a spirit quite at odds with that which has underlined many of Eric’s statements against the war. It is full of nostalgia not simply for the House of Commons, but for the cosy relations it encourages between those who stand for exploitation and oppression and those who oppose such things.

So Eric can write that he ‘will miss the friends I have made ... from all sides of the house’ and tell how ‘I shared a table in the library with Enoch Powell, someone with whom I disagreed on many issues but at the same time admired.’

You would not think from the tone of the article that the disagreements included such things as Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968, which deliberately encouraged white racism and which was followed by a murderous wave of attacks on black people.

Eric writes ‘the great thing, of course, is the cut and thrust of debate.’ You would not imagine from the way he presents things that such well mannered discussions from Tories in parliament are often accompanied by a different sort of cut and thrust outside – the cut of the racist’s knife and the thrust of the soldier’s bayonet.

Reading Eric’s words I was reminded of the account of his parliamentary experience given by a previous rebel who entered the Commons, David Kirkwood, the Clydeside shop steward from the Fust World War.

Before entering parliament in 1922, he tells, he knew little of ‘the great ones, the powerful ones, the lordly ones’, but he felt ‘they and their world were crushing my fellows down into poverty, misery, despair and death.’ But once in the House, he found ‘it was full of wonders ... I found myself moving and talking with men whose names were household words. Most strange I found them all so simple and unaffected and friendly.’

Eric’s politics have not been corrupted by this atmosphere as were those of many who went before – including Kirkwood. He has not made the traditional shift from the left of the party to its right. Far from being bedazzled by the prospect of office, he resigned on questions of principle after a brief spell as industry minister in the second Wilson government – unlike, for instance, Tony Benn who remained in office for another four years. It was this concern with principle that led that expert on hot air, Neil Kinnock, to refer to him disparagingly as ‘a balloon.’

But if his politics have not been corrupted, they have been blunted. In the 1950s he was a revolutionary, a member – along with the veteran Clydeside socialist Harry McShane – of a small political group, the Socialist Workers’ Federation. Today he says he is prosecuting ‘the class struggle in parliament.’ But in doing so he adopts much of the approach of those with who fight for the other side in the struggle.

This is shown by the very language he uses. When opposing the war in the Gutf, he has spoken of ‘our army’ and ‘our country’, when denouncing the recession of ‘our industry and our economy.’ He has forgotten the elementary point, made by Chartist agitators like Bronterre O’Brien when Karl Marx was still a schoolboy, that the country and the army do not belong to us but to those who oppress and exploit us.

This is not, of course, an individual peculiarity of Eric’s. It is something shared by virtually the whole of the Labour left. They believe in applying pressure to the existing state and then using h to restructure the economy in a socialist manner. And so they have to identify with that state at the same time as opposing its particular actions, to see it in some way as their state.

In a similar way, they believe they can reform the Labour Party also, and use it as an instrument to pressurise the state. And so they call it ‘our party’ even though its record has been one of support of the ruling class in every imperialist war in this century.

The practical consequence is that at any point in time soft left of the Labour Party is making compromises with the right, in the hope of influencing it to move in their direction, while the hard left of the Labour Party is moderating its criticisms of the soft left, hoping to influence them.

The hard left’s position is one of resistance to the Labour right’s surrender in the face of the imperialist state, but resistance combined with a conscious or unconscious blurring of differences. The right say, ‘Blood for oil,’ the Labour hard left ‘No blood for oil’ and the soft left ‘Some blood for oil’. Yet all claim to agree on sanctions, ‘some starvation for oil.’

Such ideological compromises provide a bridge by which those whose principles are weak can travel from the hard left to the careerist right. But they also provide a barrier which prevents the principled section of the hard left ever putting forward consistent arguments or breaking with all the ties that bind Labourism to the system.

That’s how it is that someone like Eric Heffer, who has fought on the side of the working class all his life, can speak out courageously against the war, and then hold the parliament which oppresses workers in such regard.

Last updated on 11 June 2010